Beethoven and Deafness
In narratives about the life of Beethoven, the fact that he lost his hearing in his late 20s but still continued to compose many of his greatest works is often cited as a marker of his genius, of a heroic instance of overcoming a disability. Indeed, in popular depictions of his life (such as the movies Immortal Beloved or Copying Beethoven) or nearly any time Beethoven is cited in literature, his deafness plays a central role in the identity of the composer.
Part of the reason for this is because, as music scholar Joseph Straus has noted, many people in the nineteenth century were obsessed with stories where someone overcame a disability or abnormality to achieve some kind of triumph. Straus also writes that many scholars, commentators, and critics have linked Beethoven’s deafness specifically to “heroic” qualities in his music.
A dramatic plan that involves the attempted recuperation of disability can be productively understood in part as a musical response to the composer’s own disability. This approach is encouraged by Beethoven himself who, in an oft-quoted remark from a 1806 sketchbook, wrote, “Just as you are plunging yourself into the whirlwind of society, and even as it is now possible for you, despite all social obstacles, to compose operas–let your deafness no longer be a secret–even in art.” The literature on Beethoven has long recognized some sort of link between the changes in Beethoven’s life (i.e., his deafness) and changes in his musical style. His middle period, often called his “heroic” period, begins with his realization that his hearing loss is serious and permanent, and critics have suggested that the heroism of his musical style reflects his personal heroism in the face of increasingly difficult life circumstances. As Solomon [one of Beethoven’s biographers] claims, “[Beethoven’s] deafness was the painful chrysalis within which his ‘heroic’ style came to maturity.”
Joseph N. Straus, Extraordinary Measures: Disability in Music (New York: Oxford U Press, 2011), 52.
One of the reasons this narrative has such staying power is because of a twenty-five year old document found after Beethoven’s death in 1827 in which he admits that he nearly gave up on music (and life) because of his deafness in 1802, but instead chose to forge ahead. Called the “Heiligenstadt Testament” (named after the Austrian town near Vienna where Beethoven wrote it), the document is a letter to his brothers and reads almost like a testimonial will.
Download the Heiligenstadt Testament here, or read in the viewer below. (Make sure to scroll down in the viewer, and you may have to zoom out to read pg. 3. Zoom and page advancing controls appear at the bottom of the page. )Heiligenstadt
(from Music in the Western World: A History in Documents, ed. Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin [New York: Schirmer, 1984])
However, especially in recent years, scholars have begun to question whether we should understand Beethoven’s music and life as a heroic overcoming of disability. Musicologist Jessica A. Holmes writes
Deafness is believed to be the menace that plagued our beloved Beethoven, and it endures as the ultimate symbol of his transcendent musical genius. But the notion that deafness precludes musical understanding is fundamentally a misconception, as music scholars Anabel Maler, Jeannette Jones, and Joseph Straus have recently argued, one that relies on an exclusively aural conception of sound and a disproportionately extreme impression of hearing loss. This groundbreaking scholarship reminds us that deaf people have long engaged with music through tactile, visual, and kinesthetic stimuli as an alternative to normal hearing
Jessica A. Holmes, “Expert Listening Beyond the Limits of Hearing: Music and Deafness,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 70, no. 1 (2017): 172-73.
In other words, people are able to hear music in ways other than just aurally (through the ears), and therefore deaf people are able to hear in other ways. At the same time, able-bodied listeners often imagine hearing loss to be more extreme than it may be for some deaf people.
For your fourth blog post, read Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament above and then consider the following questions:
- Should Beethoven’s deafness have any impact on how we understand his music? Explain your answer.
- Do we fetishize narratives where a person overcomes disability? Explain why you think so or not.
- Straus argues that the “triumph narrative” shows up especially in places where Beethoven creates some kind of musical “abnormality” or deviation from expectations and norms, and then later “resolves” or “solves” the problem. Choose a moment in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony that you think might be a good example of these kind of “triumph” narratives. Why do you think so? Try not to talk about your own personal feelings about the music, but rather, concrete musical elements such as form, melody, harmony, timbre, dynamics, etc.
Create this post by 5pm on Friday, November 17. Be sure to use the category “Blog Entry 4” or it will not count for credit!